Photo: Daija Peeler/QCity Metro

Editor’s note: Some images in this article are graphic. Reader discretion is advised.

There is a bridge that narrows the gap between freedom and imprisonment.

As soon as you reach the beginning of that bridge, your mood begins to shift.

“You are now entering Rikers Island New York City Prison Complex,” reads a green sign to the right.

You don’t know what today will look like, and you can never be prepared.

You make your way to the prison, park your car and get out. You turn to the front entrance and sigh deeply before making your way to the door. 

Once you reach the first security entrance, you sign in and turn in your firearm, your main source of protection.

The security guard hands you your uniform, and you enter through two more entrances before going downstairs to change. 

You place two metal shanks, allowed according to an unwritten rule, inside of the left pockets of your uniform and a small film camera inside the other. 

Your mind, the shanks and the camera are now your only weapons. 

You give yourself a mental prep talk before opening the bathroom door and heading into your first shift at one of the most notorious prisons in the United States.

As you walk to your station, you hear voices of people in distress who are desperate for a way out.

You see faces of people who have been abused by both inmates and officers. 

You smell feces in milk cartons that an inmate is ripening inside of the cell toilet, waiting to use at the right time. 

You pull out your camera and wind the film. “Clunk clunk.” You snap a photograph of four inmates who are sharing a cell big enough for one person. You tuck your camera back in your pocket and continue on.

This is the story of Lorenzo Steele Jr., a former correctional officer who photographed the Rikers Island environment for 12 years. 

His images are now a traveling exhibition he uses to minimize the influx of students through the school-to-prison pipeline.

Numbers don’t lie

Steele was hired as a correctional officer during the late 1980s at just 22 years old. He was scrawny but firm and demanded respect. 

Photo courtesy of Lorenzo Steele Jr.

The war on drugs was booming, and Black men and women were being bulldozed into prisons in alarming numbers. 

In 1988, the number of sentenced inmates in the United States was 244 per 100,000 residents, a 76% increase from 1980, as reported by the U.S. Department of Justice

Steele worked at Rikers Island when it still housed adolescents, although the state of New York passed legislation in late 2018 to remove anyone under age 18 from adult prisons, according to New York State, the official government website

“Our jail classified 16 to 21 as an adolescent,” Steele told QCity Metro. “Half the jail was adolescent, and half the jail was adults.”

The younger inmates, Steele said, were usually more violent than the older inmates, who understood the consequences of acting out. 

This decade also birthed the school-to-prison pipeline, a trend in which youth are funneled out of the school system and into the prison system. 

Photo courtesy of Lorenzo Steele Jr.

School administrators adopted President Reagan’s zero-tolerance policy, which criminalized students for minor offenses and disrupted their educational environment. 

A 1994 report published by the British Journal of Criminology stated that in 1989, Black children made up 48% of the population in juvenile detention facilities. 

Noticing what was happening, Steele brought his camera inside of Rikers Island to document what was going on. 

After retiring, he felt called to share those photographs in what has now turned into a mobile exhibit that illustrates the realities of being in prison.

Steele targets young children and teenagers, specifically ones who buy into the glorification of criminal activity.

He has been showing his photographs since 2001 and hopes to lead young people away from a life of destruction. 

He married in 2003 and had two children. 

Back in the day

Steele was born in 1965 in the Bronx, New York. His mother moved the family to Cambria Heights, Queens when he was 5 years old because heroin was infiltrating their neighborhood.

“She strategically knew where she wanted us to live because you got pockets in Queens, New York that are the hood,” Steele said. 

“The houses were cheaper, the food was bad and all that good stuff, but she knew that if we moved to this hood, it’s almost going to be the same as what was going on in the Bronx.” 

Both of Steele’s parents were school teachers, so education was a priority and structure was imperative. Steele had to be at home when the streetlights came on, and reading was a must. 

Steele’s mother had a silver Kodak Instamatic camera that he remembers her using to photograph family events. 

As a child, Steele said, he remembers sneaking into his parents’ closet, finding the camera and snapping pictures. 

“I’ll never forget the feeling that I got when I touched it,” he said. “It was almost like a calling.”

Steele attended Andrew Jackson High School in 1979, which is known for graduating well known musicians, including Run DMC and LL Cool J. 

It was here that Steele took his first photography course. He used a compact instamatic camera and photographed what was around him. 

Steele and his classmates on a field trip. Photo courtesy of Lorenzo Steele Jr.

“I just used to take pictures. I loved the clouds and taking pictures,” Steele said with a reminiscent look. “That was my first love.”

Around the same time, hip-hop was gaining popularity and so was partying and drugs. 

Steele was introduced to crack-cocaine by seeing the physical deterioration the drug had on the body of a young lady he was going to school with. He would even hear of rumors about her engaging in sexual acts with multiple young men at one time. 

Additionally, one of the neighborhoods that Steele’s family could have moved to ended up being a hub for the drug trade, prostitution and poverty. 

“My story would have been different if we would have moved to the cheaper side of Queens,” Steele said.

“To this day, you can still see crackheads, prostitutes, the violence, the incidents in schools and everything that comes with it.” 

A brand new world

After Steele graduated from high school in 1983, his father encouraged him to get a job working for the city. 

Steele took the postal exam and failed. He took the correctional officer exam and received a letter stating that he had passed. 

During this time, Steele was working with at-risk youth for the New York City Department of Education, but he accepted the correctional officer job because it paid more. 

“I wasn’t afraid, but it was definitely going into the unknown,” Steele said. “Back then, you didn’t even have television shows showing anything about prison and jails.” 

He attended the Basic Correctional Officer Academy for three months. Once his training was complete, the 22-year-old was assigned to the Adolescent Reception Detention Center or ARDC C-74 on Rikers Island in 1987.  

Steele was immersed into a whole new culture. 

Inmates slashed each other with razor blades, sometimes up to 50 times in one month. Officers were corrupt, using their badges as a form of dominance and smuggled contraband into the prison. 

A few of the female officers were having sexual relations with the inmates. 

As Steele spent more time in the prison, he befriended Jamel Shabazz, another correctional officer, who was known as the jail photographer. Shabazz would photograph the inmates and the officers.

After Shabazz was transferred to a drug rehabilitation program, Steele assumed the role of photographer. 

Anytime an event was going on, the prison staff looked to Steele to take pictures.

This role normalized him bringing his camera inside of the prison. 

“Jamel Shabazz, he was like the photographer, and he actually inspired me to bring my camera,” Steele said. 

“I started bringing [my camera] in, taking pictures of the officers, you know, structures and common areas inside the jail.”

Steele would also photograph afflicted inmates and the ghastly conditions of the cells but would never develop the images.  

As the years went on, Steele got acquainted with many of the inmates. He conversed with them, ensured they were mentally and emotionally fit and played basketball with them. 

These personal relationships granted Steele the opportunity to encapsulate their humanity in his photographs. 

But, after 12 years, Steele, at 33, had grown emotionally conscious of his environment and felt it was time to depart from his life as a correctional officer. 

Steele left Rikers Island in 1999.  

“After leaving the Department of Correction, it took me a good eight to nine months to detox,” Steele told the photography magazine, Aperture Archive, in 2018. 

“It was like I had just come home from a war, a 12-year war.”

Coming full circle 

Initially, Steele was not sure of what he wanted to do. He did know that he needed to work to pay the bills and found a temporary job at the airport. 

This break allowed Steele to figure out what was next for him. 

“Okay, I love working with children, I love the camera and I’m sitting on tons of images,” he thought to himself. And then it clicked. 

For the next few months, Steele went into low performing schools in New York and talked to students about the reality of life in prison. To emphasize his message, he would blow up and display his photographs. 

Photo courtesy of Lorenzo Steele Jr.

“If you look at a map of New York, back then, you had over 70 different prisons upstate,” Steele said. 

“We had a couple of communities that those individuals that wanted to be the thugs and the gangsters fed those 72 prisons. Those are the schools that I went into.”

Steele talked to students in over 30 public schools in New York City. He later realized that this endeavor was lucrative. 

According to Steele, his program was decreasing some of the violence that took place in these schools. 

As Steele’s program grew, he connected with organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness, to talk about youth in solitary confinement. 

He worked from a van and would sometimes go into low income neighborhoods and display his photos on easels. 

Photo courtesy of Lorenzo Steele Jr.

“The methodology behind it was, since our people don’t really engage with the art galleries and museums, I bring the art to them.” 

Steele soon found himself going through a divorce which would open up a new chapter of life. 

The big move

Steele’s parents, in their 80s, lived in Charlotte and needed to be cared for. 

Since he was going through a divorce, was working part-time and had no place to stay, he felt he was in a position to help.  

Steele packed up his van and came to Charlotte in 2017. 

He became a school safety officer at Mallard Creek High School but wanted to figure out how to bring his program to the school. 

Steele met a school safety officer at Turning Point Academy, an alternative school for students who have violated the student code of conduct in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. 

He brought several workshops to the school, which led to collaborations with more schools and similar organizations. 

Steele’s mind brimmed with ideas on how to expand his program and knew that his van could no longer hold all of them. 

“The idea was just pounding,” Steele said. “I’m like ‘Lord, I ain’t got no money for no bus, you know, and I don’t even know where to get no bus.’” 

While he was pursuing his masters degree at Winthrop University, he met Maria Macon, executive director of the Council of Elders. She encouraged Steele to establish a nonprofit, which led to him receiving two jumpstart grants. 

In 2021, Steele purchased a school bus with his second jumpstart grant. 

“What God did for me was He eliminated all possibilities for me to make an excuse,” Steele said. 

“I fully understand that this is my assignment, and I can’t do nothing about it. I fought with it; I wrestled with it, but I’m doing God’s work.”

Steele hired people to paint the outside of the bus, remove the seats and install white panels inside to display his artwork. 

The displays include his photographs, articles discussing incarceration and other items, such as a prison cot and a handcuffed mannequin in an orange prison jumpsuit.

A portion of the bus is marked with a blue and pink line to show visitors how big a prison cell is. 

Since moving to Charlotte, Steele has spoken in a number of schools and communities. 

Steele brought his program to the Beatties Ford community. Photo courtesy of Lorenzo Steele Jr.

One father told Steele that he was grateful to have his bus to reference and show his son. 

Steele has also written two books and filmed a documentary that details his personal experiences and what he was photographing.

He’s won a number of awards and has appeared on notable television networks including CNN.

Steele currently lives in Charlotte with his wife and daughter and is a dean at Invest Collegiate Transform charter school. 

In his free time, he tours around Charlotte with his bus. 

Steele plans to bring his program to more communities throughout North Carolina and hopes to someday open his own brick-and-mortar museum.

“We gotta teach these kids how to dream,” Steele said. 

“That’s what this thing is all about. Just connecting people to the resources that they need to succeed.”

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Daija Peeler covers arts, culture, and faith in Charlotte.

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